Chris Matthew's 'Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero' Is Told from a Very Political Point of View

Joelle Farrell
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Politicians reveal much about themselves in the heat of a campaign. When you can look behind the scenes, as Chris Matthews does, you get a fuller picture than most ever see.

Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 479 pages
Author: Chris Matthew
Price: $27.50
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-11

John Fitzgerald Kennedy once told his friend Ben Bradlee, then a reporter who would become executive editor of the Washington Post, that people read biographies to answer a simple question: “What’s he like?”

In adding to the many reflections on JFK, Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s political talk show Hardball, aimed to do just that with Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.

As the title of his sixth book suggests, it is no easy task to sum up or pin down JFK.

Yet Matthews, whose fascination with Kennedy began when he was a ten-year-old boy and heard the then-senator speak at the 1956 Democratic Convention in Chicago, offers a readable and accessible book about the 35th president. Matthews reveals Kennedy’s character through the inner workings of his campaigns and some of his decisions as senator and president.

Perhaps it’s natural that Matthews, who talks insider politics for a living, would focus on the “inside baseball”, the political tactics and the compromises struck by Kennedy to balance competing interests.

As a political reporter, I enjoyed this angle. Matthews doesn’t gloss over some of the rougher tactics the Kennedy family used to help Jack succeed. And he acknowledges that JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, greased the skids with his wealth.

But I would understand if other readers felt let down that Matthews gives less space to more personal elements of Kennedy’s life, most notably his relationship with his wife, Jacqueline.

Still, Matthews offers spare but telling details. Rather than regurgitate well-worn tales of Kennedy infidelities or the problems within the seemingly picture-perfect marriage, Matthews reiterates a handful of details that spell it out.

On the weekend of their wedding, Kennedy’s friend Lem Billings prepared Jackie for her husband’s promiscuities, telling her that he’d been with many women and hadn’t settled down. He told the 24-year-old bride that she would have to be “very understanding at the beginning.”

When Billings, a buddy of Kennedy’s since boarding school, told Kennedy what he’d done, Kennedy was “pleased” because he thought it would help her better understand him.

At first, I thought Matthews was giving Kennedy a pass for his treatment of Jackie, but he later points out instances when Kennedy treated her coldly.

After losing the vice-presidential nomination in 1956 to Estes Kefauver, who would run with Adlai Stevenson that year, Kennedy left on a Mediterranean sailing trip with his brother Teddy and a friend. Jackie, eight months pregnant, suffered dangerous complications and underwent an emergency cesarean, but not in time. She gave birth to a stillborn daughter.

“He’d shown off his wife at the convention for political gain then left her to suffer her tragedy alone,” Matthews writes.

Later, in 1960, when the Catholic Kennedy overcame the odds to win the primary in largely Protestant West Virginia, Kennedy’s celebration excluded his wife. With Kennedy glad-handing a room full of shouting supporters, celebrating his “greatest triumph to date,” Ben Bradlee recalled, Jackie stood alone, ignored. She finally went out and sat in the car until Kennedy was ready to fly back to Washington.

Matthews covers some of the oft-told tales about Kennedy, including his heroism as a PT boat skipper during World War II when he towed an injured crew member to safety after a Japanese destroyer sank his boat in 1943.

Kennedy suffered from a chronically bad back that forced him to sleep on a sheet of plywood and nearly disqualified him from military service altogether. He also suffered from Addison’s disease, an adrenal gland disorder that can be fatal.

But on that night in 1943, Kennedy took a strap of chief engineer Pat “Pappy” McMahon’s life jacket, clenched it between his teeth, and swam the gravely injured man to safety.

“As McMahon floated on his back, he had nothing to do but look up at the sky,” Matthews wrote. “He was always aware of the rhythmic tugs of the skipper’s arm strokes. He would remember most the sound of Jack’s hard breathing.”

It’s clear from the way Matthews gushes over Kennedy in his prelude that he admires his subject: “In searching for Jack Kennedy my own way, I found a fighting prince never free from pain, never far from trouble, never accepting the world he found, never wanting to be his father’s son. He was a far greater hero than he ever wished us to know.”

Matthews doesn’t hammer Kennedy for skipping the congressional vote to censure U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Republican whose witch-hunt for Communists damaged reputations and careers. McCarthy was a family friend, and while Kennedy disagreed with his tactics, he believed the United States needed to take a tough stance against communism. Kennedy scheduled back surgery and was out during the vote. Every Democrat and half of the Republicans voted to censure McCarthy.

While Kennedy convalesced after the surgery, which went poorly and brought on infections that nearly took his life, he and his longtime speechwriter and aide Ted Sorensen wrote Profiles in Courage, a book that pays tribute to eight U.S. senators for taking positions highly unpopular with their constituents.

Matthews doesn’t point out the irony. Later, when a colleague called Kennedy out on it, he wryly remarked that he didn’t put his own profile in the book, seeming to acknowledge that skipping the vote was less than brave.

When Kennedy finally became president in 1961, he faced far tougher decisions: the Bay of Pigs and later the Cuban Missile Crisis. While Kennedy shares blame for the debacle of the attempted Cuban invasion, it’s hard not to admire his handling of the latter situation, a confrontation with the Soviets that brought the country to the brink of nuclear war.

Matthews gives readers an interesting glimpse into these crisis moments in Kennedy’s short presidency, but I wished for more. As for the assassination, Matthews doesn’t touch it, other than with a brief quote from Jackie. The book ends with the final days of Kennedy’s presidency and a short chapter titled “Legacy” that reads like a eulogy.

Some readers may grow tired of the nitty-gritty of the campaigns, but politicians reveal much about themselves in the heat of a campaign. When you can look behind the scenes, as Matthews does, you get a fuller picture than most ever see.






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